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Sanderson: New Blue Harbor exec hopes to rebrand and boost Sheboygan tourism

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

For generations, Wisconsin residents – and their cousins in greater Chicagoland – have been flocking to the Dells, Door County and the Northwoods for vacations.

Sheboygan? Not so much.

But Dave Sanderson, who’s been general manager of the city’s Blue Harbor Resort since this past summer, wants to make his new home one of the Badger State’s premier getaways.

To do that, he said Blue Harbor – formerly a property of the Madison-based Great Wolf – is branding itself as waterfront resort with more than a half-mile of beach and dunes along Lake Michigan.

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The resort, which looks similar to Victorian-style Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island or San Diego’s iconic Hotel Del Coronado, is at the mouth of the Sheboygan River on what was once known as the C. Reiss Coal peninsula.

“We believe that by repositioning the resort as a classic lakeside retreat, capitalizing on the largest frontage on Lake Michigan of any resort on the lake in Wisconsin or Michigan, we can make it more of a destination and appeal to more people.”

He said resort has doubled its marketing budget and will work to attract not only families, but couples, conventions, conferences, golfers and others. He said he expects regional branding efforts to be expanded.

For the summer months of 2011, the city’s room tax revenue grew by nearly 22 percent over the previous year, an indication that travel marketing efforts may already be taking hold. Room tax revenue was $194,483 from July through September, up from $151,226 for the same period in 2010, according to the Sheboygan County Chamber of Commerce.

According to published reports, a casino jointly operated by Blue Harbor and the Sokaogon Chippewa Community of Mole Lake might be part of the city’s tourism development efforts, but Sanderson said it was premature to discuss his resort’s role in that effort.

Blue Harbor, a 182-room waterpark hotel/conference center, was sold in March to Claremont New Frontier Resort LLC for $4.2 million. The company owns several hotels in Michigan. Great Wolf spent $54 million to open Blue Harbor in 2004, but the resort never performed as hoped.

Great Wolf also paid the city of Sheboygan $2.5 million to wipe out room tax payments due from 2004 to 2008 and property tax fees through 2018. They city had invested $12 million in the resort to redevelop an industrial area into a tourism center that included the Blue Harbor Resort.

Sanderson lauded Great Wolf’s business model and said it has generally worked well for the company.

But he said Blue Harbor was marketed almost entirely as a water park with a hotel attached to it.

“We believe that the biggest competitive point of difference that we have is almost a half-mile of frontage on Lake Michigan,” he said.

“By putting more lakefront activities in play, such as bocce ball courts and outdoor pool services, a putting green and Adirondack chairs on the dunes that allow people to relax and stare at this beautiful lake, we can broaden the appeal to not only families that are looking for a vacation, but couples, groups and conferences.”

He said the hotel will also market Blue Harbor as being in one of the “greatest golf destinations in America.” He said the resort will promote a partnership with the Bull at Pinehurst Farms that was ranked as one of the top 100 public golf courses in the country by Golf Digest in 2011.

In addition, he said the sailing off the city’s shores is some of the best in the Great Lakes and that charter fishing from Sheboygan’s harbor is popular and growing for anglers looking for trophy lake trout and salmon.

This past September, Blue Harbor hosted sailors from 18 countries who competed in the Nations Cup, an Olympic-level regatta that was last held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Sanderson, who serves on the area’s tourism board, said the amount of spending by travelers in Sheboygan County’s has grown over the past few years.

“We have plans to continue that,” he said. “Sheboygan has not been branded at the level of Door County. But when you look at this city, there is so much to do. We have a great downtown with many great restaurants, boutiques, a river front with walking trails, boating and one of the best performing arts centers in the Midwest.

“I think people come to Sheboygan and are shocked at how nice it is. It exceeds their expectations.”

Sanderson praised tourism groups in the city that have sponsored an Independence Day celebration, a fall festival, Yule holidays tour of the area and other events.

He said leaders of lakefront businesses meet monthly and brainstorm ways to increase tourism to the market. He cited St. Paul’s popular Winter Carnival as an excellent model. (Several days after this interview, the city announced that 138-passenger Yorktown, a Great Lakes cruise ship, would stop at Sheboygan seven times this summer as part of its trips that begin or end in Detroit and Chicago.)

Sanderson said the Blue Harbor recently finished remodeling all but 40 rooms at the hotel, leaving some child-friendly accommodations as they were but changing others.

“We didn’t want to totally get away from what we are, but we wanted some of rooms to appeal to couples getting away for a weekend and not have them feel like they are in a kids' room,” he said.

By March 9, the resort will have a new lobby, front desk, additional office space and two new restaurants off the lobby.

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